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A dozen who made a difference

As the year winds down, we look back and find many stories that touched us. Many were inspirational, some were sad, some made us laugh. We chose 12 to revisit. Among them are a homeless woman and an elementary school janitor, a teenage poet in a wheelchair and a doctor who fights for the health of African women, a Sinatra crooner -- and one dog.

 

Reacquaint yourself with a dozen we profiled in 2003 -- City Weekly's people (and one dog) of the year.

WHO: Stephen John Wuschke

HIS STORY: He survived a severe beating in his South Boston neighborhood that left him in a wheelchair. Before that, he had begun writing poetry. The accompanying poem was the first he wrote after he awoke from a six-week coma. He writes little these days, but is looking forward to resuming school next month. (City Weekly, July 6)

Stephen John Wuschke still dresses like a Southie kid -- clothes with designer logos, and a crisp baseball cap worn indoors. He can still play the tough guy, too. But these days, the young poet says, it's even more of an act.

"It's a punk attitude still," says the 19-year-old. "I need to lose that. Now that I think about it, being from Southie ain't that great. It might have been at one time, but not so much now."

And he says that's fine with him, especially since he and his family moved to a newly purchased house in Quincy last month. The Southie three-decker where they had rented an apartment for 15 years was sold to a condo developer in September.

"I think it's terrible but it's, I don't know, the natural order of things," Wuschke says about families like his being priced out of the neighborhood. "The weakest animal gets eaten."

He says he always knew he would have to leave someday, but he hadn't expected the exit to feel so lonely.

Early one morning in June 2002, EMTs retrieved an unconscious Wuschke from the bathtub of a Southie apartment.

He later said he was unsure how he got there. Witnesses say he had left a party the previous evening and got into a fight at M Street Park.

He awoke from a coma six weeks later, paralyzed, and barely able to talk -- his condition due to the shearing of his brain, caused, he says, from it being banged against the inside of his skull.

A year and a half later, he still can't walk and his speech remains slurred.

Joseph Lee, 21, of South Boston, an acquaintance of Wuschke, was indicted by a grand jury on charges of aggravated assault and battery in Wuschke's beating. As of the City Weekly deadline, Lee was still awaiting trial. A conference was scheduled for Friday at Suffolk Superior Court between the assistant district attorney and Lee's defense lawyer.

While Wuschke was in the hospital, his aunt discovered a notebook full of dark poetry. It was from a time, he said in an interview with City Weekly in June, when he was "severely depressed and suicidal" -- drinking a lot, using cocaine and OxyContin. This past spring, his poems -- some old ones, as well as newer work -- won him the top award at a Farragut House poetry slam. His mother, Nancy, read the poems aloud for him because, he said, he couldn't stand the sound of his post-coma voice.

Wuschke says he hasn't written much since. "I just haven't got any inspiration for anything," he says.

And although he hasn't made as much progress in walking again as he had expected, he says he is cheered by little advancements.

"I can handle everything in the bathroom myself. I can get dressed entirely. I can go online myself. Stupid stuff, like put DVDs in," he says. "I just started having dreams every night -- that means your brain activity is at a much higher level."

He also says he's excited about returning to school -- as a junior at North Quincy High -- in January. He says he's not worried about making friends there, but hopes they won't think of him as "grandpa Steve."

As for his old friends in Southie, first he says he doesn't care about them. Then he admits he does.

"I don't have no friends. I have like one. One friend," says Wuschke. But he doesn't come to visit often, he said.

Wuschke has had two visitors to his new house -- his former tutor and the Rev. Daniel Hennessey -- to play chess. Hennessey is a priest at St. Brigid's, where Wuschke attends Mass most Sundays.

"[Chess] helps me a lot to work on my impulsiveness," Wuschke says.

He says he plans to study psychology someday. "I want to be a mentor to a little bit younger of a kid," says Wuschke. "I'd tell him, 'Don't mess up your chances. If you're good at sports, ride it for as long as you can. Make that get you a good education.' "

When he was 13, Wuschke says, he rejected a baseball scholarship at the Choate boarding school in Connecticut. "JFK went there," he says. He blames what he calls his "Southie punk attitude" for that decision, which he now regrets.

So does he miss anything about the place he still considers his home?

"Yeah," says Wuschke. "The convenience of walking down the street and seeing five people I know. That everyone who ever knew me, knew me for living there -- not out in Quincy."

KELLYANNE MAHONEY

WHO: Crystal Evans

HER STORY: For the past year, Crystal Evans has chronicled life on city streets via her online journal (July 27 and Oct. 12).

In her online diary, Crystal details how she logs on to the Internet at Boston libraries or at a Cambridge homeless youth center, Youth On Fire, where she also washes her clothes once a week.

When she's not doing any of the above, she is trying to secure a roof over her head on a cold night at a shelter, often the University Lutheran Shelter in Cambridge run by Harvard students. She finds a meal at Youth on Fire or buys a snack at the Diesel Cafe in Davis Square.

After a Lesley University professor saw Evans's story this fall in City Weekly, she asked Evans to share her story with her students.

''She was not able only to talk about her own situation, but she was a voice for other homeless individuals," says Dalia Llera, an assistant professor who invited Evans to speak to her Psychology of Culture and Identity class last month. ''I asked her to come to speak with us because our course focuses on issues of power and oppression, and she certainly has had her share of oppression and marginalization. Her dialogue was very inspirational."

Evans also shared her story this fall in her memoir-writing class at Harvard University Extension School, and plans to take advanced memoir writing in the spring. Her wish for the new year: ''I'm hoping that 2004 will bring me an apartment. I want to start working on writing a book, a memoir of homelessness."

Her book will detail how she became homeless. After Evans ran away from her Concord, N.H., home three years ago she suffered a brain injury in a car accident that left her with seizures, short-term memory loss, and sometimes vertigo. Her condition made it difficult to hold down the nanny and cleaning jobs she held at the time.

Eventually, she found her way south and made her life on the streets of Boston.

In her writings, she described how she volunteers at Children's Hospital and at the Ronald McDonald House in Brookline, and how she goes to therapy for her seizures and vertigo at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

She hopes to get subsidized housing so she can have a place to call home. In the meantime, Evans is in the process of applying to Harvard full time for next fall and to Tufts University.

For the holidays, she is making stockings out of fleece with a fellow homeless friend for the young people at Youth on Fire. In her journal, she asks for donations, such as razor blades, small bars of soap, and toothbrushes, to fill the stockings.

''I want other people to know they can rise above homelessness and get somewhere in life," she wrote in a recent online posting. ''Being homeless doesn't mean your life is over. It's simply another challenge a person must overcome, one that makes one stronger in the long run."

JOHNNY DIAZ

WHO: Miguel Arguelles

HIS STORY: After leaving Cuba at age 10 and landing in Miami unable to speak English, he is now finishing the fall semester at Harvard and his first novel, which looks at the importance of fantasy in a childhood and the emotional effects of a post-revolutionary Cuba. (April 20)

"What I'm looking forward to the most in the new year is perhaps seeing my novel in print, seeing others read it," Miguel Arguelles said recently, as he juggled studying for Harvard finals and finishing edits on his book before submitting it to his New York City literary agent. "It is a story about the Cuba that I can now only visit in my memories, my dreams, my words. It is a story about the ubiquitousness of loss, laughter, love, dreaming . . . feeling."

Traces of those themes could be found in the essay he wrote for his Harvard application. In that, he described life in Cuba 1,800 miles away, where "the sun shines brightest and drowns in tears . . . where Santa Claus has not the visa to enter and dreams cannot escape their prison of nonexistence."

He and his dreams fled Cuba Feb. 15, 1995. When he arrived in Miami he couldn't speak English and high school classmates referred to him as "a Cuban ref" because of his thick accent.

But the "ref" eventually represented his Miami high school as its valedictorian and last year became its first student to attend Harvard.

His rising star made him the toast of the Miami media, with the mayor's wife leading a scholarship drive and President Bush acknowledging him in a speech and encouraging him to continue shining at Harvard.

Acclimated to his Cambridge surroundings, Arguelles enjoys salsa and ballroom dancing and staying up late chatting with dorm mates about what the future holds.

But for now, he has Miami on his mind as he prepares to head to his other home for the holidays.

He will be with his parents and younger brother on Christmas Day, when he plans to chow down on bistec (beef steak).

JOHNNY DIAZ

WHO: Tony Cibotti

HIS STORY: He entertains customers, singing a la Sinatra, at Hyde Park's Tutto Italiano deli and elsewhere. (July 20)

Not far from the deli aisles he strolled last July, crooning the tunes of his beloved Sinatra, Tony Cibotti prepared last Monday night for an audience with summer in their hearts.

Sporting sweaters of red and green, angel pins, and holiday ties, 70-plus residents of the Blake Estates gathered to hear the heralded Cibotti sing. A number arrived in the well-decked hall of the assisted living center by cane, walker, or wheelchair.

''This is gonna be a great one," said Cibotti, stepping away from the sound board and straightening the cuffs of his trademark blue blazer. ''Love this audience. They really get into it. I've been doing this gig for five years now -- ever since my sister moved here."

As if on cue, Lena Sacramona appeared. The 74-year-old Cibotti embraced his 89-year-old sister, then announced a highlight of the show. ''I'll sing a few songs, you know," he said, "some Christmas tunes, some Frank, then I'll call Lena up to tell some stories. She's a great story-teller."

Asked about any changes since those ''summer winds" stopped blowing this year, Cibotti mentioned his gratitude for steady work and ran through the week at hand to illustrate the point.

''I was in Brookline yesterday. Thursday I'll be in West Roxbury singing, and Friday I have a gig in Southie," he said. "That one came about in an interesting way." Cibotti said he was mistaken for a loud radio while performing at a party in South Boston last August.

"The lady couldn't believe it wasn't Sinatra," he said modestly. "She promised to book me for her holiday party -- and she did."

As fond of conversation as song, Cibotti had to be reminded the show should begin soon. His wife, Carol, handed him a microphone. In a moment, the recorded strings of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" filled the lobby.

Cibotti glided to the center of the carpet, extended a hand to the audience, and delivered the opening line with a warmth and ease that somehow made the holiday chestnut sound new, sincere.

The Blake Estates audience relished it. Some mouthed the words, other sang along, and one gentleman in a green cardigan wore a look of joy that seemed to owe as much to nostalgia as the present. A couple of songs later, Cibotti was dancing with his sister. ''I've been so fortunate," he said. "I just want to keep on singing."

RON FLETCHER

WHO: Brian Honan

HIS STORY: The legacy of the Allston-Brighton city councilor who died in July 2002 at age 39 has been kept alive in many projects -- including a fellowship program launched this month. (March 30, April 6, April 13)

After City Councilor Brian Honan died last year of complications following surgery for cancer, family and friends searched for a way to honor his legacy beyond the typical memorials.

With the help of two grad students from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, they devised a blueprint to memorialize the brand of activism of the 39-year-old son of Allston-Brighton.

In the first week of December, the inaugural members of the Brian J. Honan Fellowship program embarked on a practical two-year civics lesson -- funded by donations and dollars yet to be raised -- that will include a paid summer internship and a seat on a community agency board of directors.

The hope is that by dissecting a municipal budget, the 12 Allston-Brighton teenagers will learn where the fiscal fault lines are.

By deconstructing government hierarchy, they'll discover the political pressure points they'll need to press to secure resources.

By studying media and arts, they'll understand the power of pop culture and the press in effecting change.

By convincing others to help them, say, raise cash and coats for homeless people, they'll be driven by a sense of public service.

By reading to youngsters or chaperoning them on field trips, they'll practice good citizenship.

"It's creating the same level of commitment that Brian had for the community," said Andrea Howard, 37, executive director of the West End House Boys & Girls Club of Allston-Brighton, which is managing the project.

Nominated by teachers and others, and chosen by West End House staff, the eight male and four female high-schoolers reflect the immigrant stew of Allston-Brighton that Honan called home: the fellows hail from China, Pakistan, Laos, and Guatemala.

They include one who wants to absorb all he can here so he can work in his native government when he returns to Asia and another who's already been active in pushing for affordable housing in Allston-Brighton.

One of the fellows, Osmin Montero knew Honan and would strive to follow his example. "Helping others, not yourself," said Montero, a 16-year-old sophomore at Boston Latin Academy. "Working as a community, not as individuals."

RIC KAHN

WHO: Dr. Nawal Nour

HER STORY: A campaigner against the African ritual of female genital cutting, she won a MacArthur grant. (May 25, June 1)

As Dr. Nawal Nour, a Brigham and Women's Hospital obstetrician, walked from the labor floor to her office to answer a page from the MacArthur Foundation, she figured they wanted to ask her about a grant application she was preparing.

Then she remembered she had not yet submitted her request for support of her work with African women.

"At that point I started thinking, 'Are we talking about the MacArthur Fellowship?' " Nour recalled recently. "These are awards that other people get. It really is not the kind of award you expect to receive yourself."

But on that October day, the 37-year-old became one of those "other people" and received a MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 stipend and often is dubbed "a genius grant."

It's been a year of high exposure for the petite, soft-spoken Nour, who has made it her life's work to improve the health of African women who undergo ritual female genital cutting, a procedure that can lead to a lifetime of pain and embarrassment.

This spring she appeared in an Eileen Fisher ad as part of the designer's "Women Change the World Every Day" campaign, and was inducted into the Boston YWCA's Academy of Women Achievers. Oh, and she also recently became engaged.

"It's been a good year," she said.

For now, the only impact the honors have had is to deepen a commitment to bring her work overseas. Eventually she hopes to split her time between the Brigham's African Women's Health Center and women who need her help in Africa.

Born in the Sudan, raised in Egypt, and schooled in London and the United States, Nour has long wanted to help women who have undergone the ritual procedure.

Western doctors often do not know how to treat these patients, and Nour has started a campaign to educate them. Now she wants to extend those efforts to African doctors and to spread the word about the health ramifications of the practice.

"Winning the MacArthur gave me a platform and legitimacy that will enable me to grasp that larger mission," said Nour, who plans to make a trip to the Sudan next year. "Suddenly I wasn't just an individual at the Brigham, trying to take care of Sudanese. Now in the Sudan, people have heard about me."

SHARI RUDAVSKY

WHO: Don Vito

HIS STORY: The French bulldog rules in the North End, where everybody knows his name. (June 29)

For a little French bulldog named Vito, an appearance in City Weekly was just the first stop in what is shaping up to be a life lived in the headlines. The pug-faced pup easily upstaged his owner, Jen Whitelock, and her business partner, Karen Ray, in a June article meant to highlight the women's North End dog-walking business, ''The Dogfather." And the scope of Vito's influence has only grown since then.

The tiny dog with the oversized attitude and Italian moniker is the current star of Just Frenchies, a magazine geared to French bulldog owners nationwide. According to Whitelock, ''the Don" -- as old-time North Enders call him -- will reach out to a younger crowd early next year when he appears in an Emerson College student-project marketing campaign promoting the business.

With a little help from Whitelock and Ray, the dog-in-charge generously shares his wisdom on everything from doggie bad breath to what to do if you eat rat poison in the ''Are You Talkin' To ME?" advice column he pens for the North End's local newspaper a couple of times a month.

''My dog is cooler than I am," joked Whitelock, who traded in her first job out of law school to join Ray, then dog walker for Vito and countless other North End pooches, full time last March.

Neither Whitelock nor Ray -- who began walking dogs after losing her job with US Airways post-Sept. 11 -- plan on returning to the corporate world anytime soon.

Their main goal for 2004, the women say, is to find a North End location in which to launch a storefront for ''The Dogfather." In the meantime, the entrepreneur duo have their hands full -- literally. According to Ray, she, Whitelock, and their team of dog walkers now juggle more than 100 canines on a regular basis.

Lisa Peterson, manager of the North End/Waterfront Starbucks, signed on as a part-time dog walker a few months back. Peterson said she was used to answering customers' questions about Vito, a longtime Starbucks regular whose press clippings are on display next to the pastry counter, while at work. But she was astounded to learn the dog's reputation had spread beyond the neighborhood.

''I was over in Charlestown and mentioned that my friend has a French bulldog," Peterson recalled. ''And the guy I was talking to was just like: 'Oh. Do you mean Don Vito?'!"

TARA MURPHY

WHO: Richard Brooks

HIS STORY: In memory of Lenny Zakim, he donated thousands of dollars worth of metal and work to the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge (March 16).

Pope John Paul II.

Bruce Springsteen.

The Dalai Lama.

Richard Brooks.

Richard Brooks?

The first three, at different times, shared the stage with the late Boston civil rights leader Lenny Zakim.

This year, Brooks publicly forged his own lasting link with Lenny.

In an homage to Lenny, Brooks -- president of Duncan Galvanizing in Everett -- treated 70 tons of metal earmarked for a stretch of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge with anticorrosives, and then donated the $20,000 worth of work to the multibillion-dollar Central Artery project.

''I wanted to do something for Zakim," said Brooks, 64.

Brooks said it was a small payback for the major bridge-building done by Zakim, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England known for developing bonds between disparate people before he died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 46.

''I said, 'I owe it to Lenny,' " said Brooks.

After the gift was noted in City Weekly, Brooks said he was contacted by more than 60 people. ''People always think there's an ulterior motive to something," Brooks said. ''When people give from the heart, people respect that."

Brooks said that when he drives across the bridge on his way to work from his home in Wellesley, he is filled with a special feeling, a spiritual feeling.

''It's a feeling of romance," said Brooks. ''It's a feeling of respect -- knowing you're part of something that's going to be there for hundreds of years."

Brooks said that just as Zakim's noble works inspired him, he hopes his deed will motivate others.

''Gestures like that," he said, ''build bridges between people."

RIC KAHN

WHO: New England Patriots

THEIR STORY: When the Allston-Brighton Pop Warner football league found itself in dire fiscal straits this year, the Pats stepped up to the plate. (Aug. 24)

Long before the New England Patriots clinched the AFC East title this month, members of the Allston-Brighton entry in the Pop Warner football league knew the Pats were champs.

After all, with the clock running down, the Patriots stepped up and helped rescue their star-crossed season.

According to Allston-Brighton officials, the Eagles' program had been left in shambles after its president moved to Florida last year. If the organization couldn't raise $5,000 to cover an equipment shortfall before September's opening day, they said, the schedule would have been scrubbed.

Patriots officials read about the Eagles' plight in City Weekly in August and wrote checks for helmets, jerseys, and other gear.

Earlier this month, the Patriots took a page out of the same good Samaritan playbook when they donated $3,000 to the Dorchester Pop Warner football squad to help them travel to the national tournament in Florida (where they lost to a team from California, 16-6).

''It's about being a responsible part of your community," said Rena Clark, Patriots vice president for community affairs and corporate philanthropy. ''We believe that athletics are an important part of a child's development."

Though they only won one game, the season wasn't a total loss for the Eagles crew, said Chris Keohan, the Allston-Brighton Pop Warner president.

''The kids can . . . see that someone really does care about them," said Keohan, 22. ''In the long run, they'll never forget what the Patriots did for them."

RIC KAHN

WHO: Steve Coombs

HIS STORY: The longtime beloved custodian at Manning Elementary School in JP narrowly survived budget cuts. (June 29)

When the budget ax came down this year, Steve Coombs -- along with other custodians in the fiscally strapped school system -- faced possible layoff.

But in June, teachers and parents were relieved to learn that Coombs, the school's seven-year custodian, was staying. He now had two jobs, though: he had to take responsibility -- with help from part-timers -- for maintenance at the nearby James M. Curley Elementary School as well.

It's the small unofficial duties, the extras Coombs does that makes the difference. He takes phone messages when the secretary steps away. He coaches track competitions and serves as an auctioneer at school fund-raisers. He rescues teachers stranded in the snow and clears paths for cars. During career day, he tells students why he loves his job.

Despite dashing back and forth between two schools, Coombs said earlier this month, "the kids and staff" keep him going. "Just the interaction I have with both."

JOHNNY DIAZ

WHO: Elizabeth Myer Boulton

HER STORY: Founded Hope Church in Roslindale last Easter. Now it's outgrowing its space. (Jan. 19)

If starting a new business is a leap of faith, starting a new church must be a colossal jump. Like any other new business, it can be a risky proposition. A site needs to be located, money raised, and a congregation must be found. Add in the current climate of skepticism about church in general, and you've got a tall order to fill.

Elizabeth Myer Boulton, the 29-year-old founder and pastor of Hope Church in Roslindale, acknowledges she only had an idea of what she was getting into when she started the church last Easter.

"It's all new," said Boulton. "It's challenging. It's marketing, small business administration, preaching and pastoral care. You have to collect people."

Besides weekly communion, the church offers an open door to "people of all colors, cultures, abilities, and sexual orientations, to old and young, to believers and questioners and questioning believers," as Boulton says at the beginning of every service.

Hope Church has its roots in the Protestant faith and is in partnership with the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Boulton said she has exceeded her goals for her first year, set with UCC and Disciples of Christ mentors, which had included having at least 30 people join the church and at least 55 come to services each week.

"When you set the goals before the church opens, it's just numbers," she said. "And then you see them coming to worship, and it's just amazing because they represent families and lives and this whole world."

The church is outgrowing its rented home in the basement of the Boston School of Modern Languages, and Boulton is on the lookout for a permanent space.

"New church start is exciting," said Boulton. "It's organic and always flexible and changing. That makes for an exciting, creative atmosphere."

Excited about her first Christmas season, Boulton has planned an "unrehearsed" Christmas pageant, with homemade costumes, to tell the traditional story of the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve, she will preach a short homily, followed by carols

Hope Church meets Sunday evenings at 5:30 in the basement of the Boston School of Modern Languages, 814 South St., Roslindale. Christmas Eve service will start at 7:30 p.m.

KIM FOLEY MACKINNON

WHO: Richard Newman

HIS STORY: He was an activist, researcher, and historian who made it his mission to battle racism. He died from cancer in July after marrying his longtime companion, Belynda Bady, in June. (June 22, July 13)

Richard Newman started working on a book about Florence Mills, a renowned jazz singer and dancer, back in the 1980s. But he wasn't able to finish the book. He died July 7, after battling brain cancer. In his honor, though, a researcher he had hired is working to complete the biography.

''It was his nemesis," says Bady. She sees the completion of the book as a tribute to her husband. ''He's still publishing in death."

Newman, a well-regarded activist, researcher, and historian of African-American history, was 73. A white man, he was passionate about combating racism and devoted his life to researching and teaching African-American studies. His gregarious personality, charm, and wit were contagious.

After a retirement party and a wedding ceremony marking his union with Bady in June, Newman became weak from activity and more than 30 rounds of radiation.

''I feel so blessed to have had even 10 years with Richard," says Bady. Beacon Hospice volunteers, helped Newman get through each day both spiritually and physically.

Volunteers continually graced the Commonwealth Avenue condo Newman and Bady shared, helping with chores and keeping Newman company while Bady took some time for herself. ''He was such a special person," says Robin Hansen , volunteer coordinator.

In her husband's honor, Bady is working to set up a scholarship with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library. Bady says the summer and fall were difficult, and now she's starting to resume a more normal schedule. She has returned to work in interior design full time and is busy with Harrison, a 5-month-old golden retriever. ''Richard loved goldens," she says.

When Bady misses her husband most, she sometimes listens to one of their many conversations she recorded. She recalls one during which the two are discussing the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Bady says she's asking Newman who will make her laugh when he is gone. ''He told me, 'Other people will make you laugh,' " she recalls fondly.

Although she doubted this for months, Bady says she's finally starting to see the truth in his words. ''I have been able to find laughter without him, and I didn't think I would."

BRIDGET SAMBURG

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